Category Archives: iran

Reflection: Said and oppression, part II

After writing about Edward Said and how Americans view information from Iran, I wanted to conclude with what I often end up thinking about oppression and the challenges to overcoming it. Those with privilege ultimately build the box in which they operate that privilege, separating them from the oppressed. Even in cases when the privileged sincerely desires to struggle for liberation for the underprivileged, there is reason for those lacking in power to distrust those with power. The distrust and inability to destroy the internalized stereotypes people form builds a difficult trap for everyone.

With the example of videos from Iran, we witness the trap that first-world bloggers face when they feel excitement and even envy about protests in Iran as they try to learn and be in solidarity. Others criticized writers who hinted enthusiasm because of their problematic privilege. Since to fight oppression means one is oppressed, celebrating conditions that require protest forgets that third world situations are not ideal. (Not to suggest that first-world situations are ideal, either.) If we take for granted that the bloggers wanted to contribute somehow to Iranian democracy, it is tragic that their attempt further highlights their privilege. It is a reflection of how difficult it is to develop solidarity.

Here’s a different, small example that could be more relatable. When I make eye contact with people on the street, I always find myself wondering what the person thinks I think of him or her. If I saw a person of color, his double consciousness* may lead him to analyze the impression he gave off. He might decide he is an invisible man. At the end of the day, I, the person of privilege, cannot recognize who is this person, really. (Ok, this is not a perfect scenario. The power dynamics of an Asian American female isn’t exactly one of white male privilege but, considering the history of tensions between Asians and Latinos and blacks, some assume that we are of privilege. I think Asian Americans need to be cognizant of this.) Also, if I was a person of privilege, I would be less likely think twice of this person on the street. Even if I wanted to acknowledge him, I am trapped in the lack of consciousness of my assumed position and he is influenced by his consciousness. I may have looked scared when I wanted to come off as respectful, or any other number of mis-construed and mis-read facial expressions. Furthermore, the effort made by the person of privilege marks their relationship as unequal to begin with. Both the oppressor and the oppressed are restricted in their acknowledgment of each other as people (read– both as oppressed).

I hate to end on this depressing note so I’ll leave with something from Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, probably the best text on the humanistic dynamics of oppression that I’ve read. Among other points, Freire argues that the oppressor can only end his dehumanizing role through true solidarity with the oppressed. Straight to the heart.

Solidarity requires that one enter into the situation of those with whom one is solidary; it is a radical posture. If what characterizes the oppressed is their subordination to the consciousness of the master…, true solidarity with the oppressed means fighting at their side to transform the objective reality which has made them these ‘beings for another.’ …True solidarity is found only in the plentitude of this act of love, in its existentiality, in its praxis. 

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Reflection: what Edward Said brings to the discussion of Neda Soltani

No doubt many of you have read about the death of Neda Agha Soltani, who was killed during Iranian protests over the country’s recent election. (Like other bloggers, I will leave you the choice to go Youtube the graphic video yourself.) The blogosphere has led me to consider points of views I would not have otherwise and, after stumbling upon YouTube clips of cultural theorist Edward Said, I wanted to include him in this conversation.

The debate surrounding Soltani (as far as I have read) has been about American viewers’ reactions to the video. Some have reacted negatively to Kate Harding’s article “I am Not Neda.” One commenter satirically “translated” Harding’s word:

‘ Her death touched and horrified people. Although, to be honest, I much rather that people revolt and die more *sniff* discretely. Also, I’ve seen people die in movies and so I’m not shocked, which shows the underlying problem with reality itself, not me. But more importantly, how can I take all these things, from sweeping historical events to a personal, public death, the special providence in the fall of a sparrow, if you will, and turn it into a discussion about me?’ 

While I do believe that Harding does come off as lacking empathy, I give her credit for explaining,

we should be awfully wary of enjoying a frisson of self-congratulation when we do [watch the video], or getting so swept away by the emotional momentum of someone else’s fight — I’ve seen several bloggers express excitement and even a twisted sort of envy while watching the intensity of the Iranian people’s passionate political engagement — that we lose sight of just how much we don’t know and are not actually experiencing. 

If we take her seriously, Harding is attempting to push viewers to recognize their privilege of not being in Iran and– due to that privilege– their disconnect from it.

Tami’s post on Racialicious and “Pilgrim Soul” at Pursuit of Happyness both challenge readers to ask if using Soltani as a martyr is right. I also agree with PSoul when she argues that martyr status dehumanizes people: “Either human beings are human beings, or they are ciphers for grand ideas. And when someone is demoted to the status of stand-in for Progress or Democracy or Liberation, however laudable those goals might be, I don’t think you can call what you are doing anti-oppressive work.”

In PSoul’s comment thread a discussion between the writer and “BeckySharper” leads Becky to counter, “I don’t think there’s anything self-congratulatory about bearing witness, at least, not what we’ve been talking about in this thread. There’s relatively little I can do materially to help protesters in Iran. I can, however, be aware and speak up about it on my end of things. I have free speech, and I can use it.”

And to this, I also say, right on! …Wait. What? Am I just being agreeable today? No. The truth is that these writers all are touching on significant and complementary angles of privilege and politics. Viewers of the video would benefit from awareness of their privilege (and shoot, anybody of a privileged position or background for that matter), which is what Harding struggles to raise. Those working towards anti-oppression might also want to resist turning Soltani into a martyr, as PSoul and Tami write. In addition to all this, the video and its audiences exist in a larger historical discourse that raises the stakes of this video and so-called “citizen journalism” (Twitter, YouTube, etc) throughout these Iranian protests. For that matter, “bearing witness” should be taken seriously too, as a limited first step.

Let’s consider now the YouTube clips of Edward Said speaking about the themes in his seminal work Orientalism (1978). (I’ve posted clip 1/4 of his discussion below and the rest is great as well). He speaks about how the U.S.’s orientalism has equated the Middle East with Islam, terrorism, the exotic—essentially stereotyping and dehumanizing the Arab world. This leads me to say that Said could provide an answer to Tami’s question: “…why does the Western world (and here I refer mostly to the dominant culture, not marginalized groups) have to see these things to be shaken from its complacency?” and specifically, “Why must we see an Iranian woman die on a city street in order to understand the gravity of the country’s political upheaval?”

Well, Said may suggest that we (the Western world/dominant culture to which Tami refers) have demonized the Middle East for so long that we in turn tragically need something so shocking to stir us into recognizing Iranians’ humanity. If seeing this video pushes viewers to thinking of the Middle East as a diverse and complex region, if it aids people in resisting stereotypical portrayals of Middle Easterners, then this media has extreme significance in combating a historically oppressive orientalism. Yet if viewers forget the ultimate humanizing goals of anti-oppression work, then it is all for naught, as PSoul raises. And moreover, readers must develop consciousness of their own privilege in order to recognize that the real test remains for citizens to take action in issues we can affect, such as speaking up in the face of racism or even advocating for sincere and fair negotiations over Israeli and Palestinian statehood.

There is a bit more I want to say to conclude, but I feel this is mental overload for one post. Part II, coming shortly.

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